$6B reading program challenged
May 2, 2008
Participants vs. non-participants: No comprehension edge is found
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/237093
WASHINGTON — The $6 billion reading program at the center of President Bush's signature education law has failed to make a difference in how well children understand what they read, according to a study by the program's own champion — the U.S. Department of Education.
The program, Reading First, was designed to help boost student performance in low-income elementary schools, but failed to improve reading comprehension, says the study from the Institute of Education Sciences, part of the Education Department.
There was no difference in comprehension scores between students who participated in Reading First and those who did not, the study found.
The findings released Thursday threw the program's future into doubt.
"We need to seriously re-examine this program and figure out how to make it work better for students," said California Democratic Rep. George Miller, chair of the House education committee.
Reading First was created as part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which aims to get all children doing math and reading at their proper grade level. Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings have championed the reading program as an important part of the law.
Institute Director Russ Whitehurst said the study focused on reading comprehension rather than other aspects of reading such as whether kids grasp phonics, because comprehension is the ultimate goal when teaching reading.
The study did find Reading First led to more time spent by teachers on the various aspects of reading judged important by a federal reading panel.
The study also found that among schools participating in Reading First, higher levels of funding led to some improvement in scores.
Congress cut funding to the program due to budget constraints and controversies surrounding it.
"It's no surprise that Reading First has been a failure," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., who led the fight to cut the program's budget following reports about management problems and potential conflicts of interest.
Spellings hailed the program as a success last year when she released data showing scores in Reading First schools were up. However, those scores weren't compared with schools where Reading First wasn't in place. The new study compares those using the program with those not using it.
So, while elementary school students appear to be improving in reading across the board, there's no difference in the gains being made by students participating in Reading First and those who are not, according to the study.
Amanda Farris, deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives at the Education Department, said Reading First remains popular.
"Secretary Spellings has traveled to 20 states since January. One of the consistent messages she hears from educators, principals and state administrators is about the effectiveness of the Reading First program in their schools and their disappointment with Congress for slashing Reading First funds," she said in a statement Thursday.
Institute of Education Sciences
About 20 schools in the Amphitheater, Sunnyside and Tucson Unified school districts participated in the Reading First program in 2006, according to Arizona Daily Star archives.
The state Department of Education's most recent listing of Reading First Schools, also from 2006, listed the Sahuarita Unified School District as also taking part in the federally funded program.
It's unknown how much money the districts received as a part of the program, which is used only in Title One elementary schools.
Arizona Daily Star